Saturday, September 30, 2006

I've Only Got Three Hands, You Know!

The accordion is a three handed instrument, I always say. There are many things which set it apart from the piano, one of which is the bellows. It has a little more in common with harmoniums, most forms of which have a bellows system of some sort, but only the accordion family have the added facet of a bellows which changes direction while the instrument is played. This creates much more freedom for the player, but as usual, with freedom comes responsibilities and complications.
The first step to bellows control is holding the accordion effectively. Before we start, I would encourage all players who are still learning basic and intermediate bellows control to play sitting down. The ideal height of chair is one that puts your hips just slightly higher than your knees when you sit squarely. I find sitting nearer the front edge of the chair, rather than right back in it, helps to put me in the right position, as will a cushion for many people. I believe that the accordion needs to be positioned so that the right hand keyboard is just about in the middle of your body - so under your chin. This is why there is a long and a short strap in a pair. If your straps are not allowing you to get into this position, try adjusting them. Often the right strap is still not long enough to achieve this. You can make a simple extension by adding a loop of very strong cord between the bottom strap bracket and the leather loop created by doing up the little buckle on the strap which is normally used to attach it to the bracket. An overhand knot should be safe enough as long as you leave a bit to spare beyond the knot in the unlikely case of slippage. Now your accordion probably feels too loose! If you aren't using a back strap you probably should be, and now that you have lengthened you right strap (and probably tightened your left one) you may well need to shorten your back strap as well.
There are a number of reasons why this is an advantageous position for holding the accordion, but from the viewpoint of bellows technique the main reason is that it allows you to apply pressure to the back edge (the corner where the back of your accordion meets the left end) in order to push the bellows in. This is crucial!!! The left end of your accordion must be further to the left than the left side of your own ribcage when the bellows is closed. If it is not, your own torso will be in the way of you using your arm effectively to operate the bellows.
If you push the bellows in with the palm of your hand, the heel of your hand or by using the inside flat of your forearm on the whole of the left end of your accordion, you have got yourself stuck in a position where it is now difficult to move your hand freely around the bass keyboard. People often ask me "Which part of my hand/arm should I push the bellows with?" That really depends on how long your arm and fingers are relative to the size of your accordion. What counts is that you can move your hand around the bass keyboard without affecting the bellows. The two things need to be highly independent - a tall order considering that the basses are played with the left fingers and the bellows is worked by the left arm, plus most of us are right handed!!
Here's how to find the right position: place your left fingers on the bass buttons where they need to be to play easily. It's best if the ends of your fingers hit the buttons in a sort of hammer action, as opposed to putting the pads of your fingers on them. The first position means that your fingers will be somewhat arched and have more clearance over the buttons you are not using. Everything else is determined by where your fingers need to be.
Now that you've found this position, arch your wrist slightly, so that the flat underside of your forearm and the heel of your hand come off the accordion slightly. This arch should stay the same whether you are opening of closing your bellows. This means you will need to apply pressure to the all important back edge in order to push the bellows in. This may well feel very unnatural for awhile. That's okay. Learning something new is rarely entirely comfortable! You will find this easier if you position your arm so that you are reaching up slightly for whatever row of buttons your fingers are on. In other words, your fingers are pointing slightly upward when you play, not parallel to the ground. Also check that your bellows strap is loose enough to accomodate this slight arch in your wrist - but not so loose that there is a great deal of play when you change bellows direction. Remember, this strap works loose gradually as you play, so you need to develop the habit of checking and adjusting its position regularly.
Hang in There!
This can be quite a big shift both mentally and physically - especially if you have been holding your accordion differently for some time. Be patient with yourself, but if you really want to improve your bellows control hang in there! Try to think in terms of forming a new habit rather than breaking an old one. You might do this by not playing all your familiar pieces and exercises for a few days. Begin by spending awhile just holding the accordion in this new position and playing some long notes with the right hand. Just get the feeling of going in and out. Listen for a steady, controlled, unwobbly sort of sound. Experiment with loud and quiet. Then play a little with your left hand. Just something which you consider to be very simple. A few bars of waltz time in C might be a good place to start. Practise taking your bellows out different distances. Not too far at first, further when you are ready to stretch yourself. Work on being conscious of changing direction, not just letting it happen. This will set you up for success with the bellows.
Well, no pictures so far, but I think I may have come near the 1,000 word mark! There is so much more to the bellows, but I am going to leave it there for now. If you want to learn more about the bellows, make a start by getting going on this. Give yourself a week or so to assimilate and experience these ideas. I will write another installment soon, so that you can begin to put this new position to work for you to improve the following:
  • dynamics (loud and quiet)
  • phrasing
  • accentuation
  • tone

and much more.

In the meantime, please feel free to ask questions about this topic if you are feeling stuck or unsure. You will probably be doing ten other people who have the same question a huge favour!!

- Kris

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When you find yourself in a hole - stop digging!

If I could get pupils to follow this one rule they would think I was the greatest teacher on the planet.

We have all been brought up to believe that if you work hard you will succeed. If you work out you will get fit. And if you practise hard you will play better. Well, maybe not. Too often I get pupils coming to me feeling bad about themselves, angry at me, ready to give up - because they practise and practise and don't see much improvement. I am going to try to offer you some insight into why this happens.

When you find yourself in a hole - stop digging! By being in a hole I mean you are making the same mistake again and again. You know you are getting a rhythm wrong, missing a couple of notes in a passage, forgetting the B flats, running out of fingers - whatever. Well what do you want to practise? The mistake? Probably not. You want to practise NOT making the mistake. You are in a hole. Stop digging.

By digging I mean just going over and over the thing and wishing it would get better. Stop! Try to look at the thing from some new angles. How can you break it down? The most obvious solutions for accordionists would be play each hand seperately until it is correct, then put them back together or take the passage out of the piece and go over it slowly, then work it back in. This is a good start, and if you aren't doing this in your current approach you will be amazed at how much it helps. But it takes self discipline! Most of us think we are "having more fun" if we just play the whole piece through over and over. In the short term, maybe we are. But which is more fun - having a repertoire of five pieces that you can play okay as long as you don't make a mistake? Or having a repertoire of fifty pieces that you feel confident about, and feeling pretty confident that the next fifty are on their way?

I have lot's of techniques to help pupils stop digging. There are endless ways to think outside the box (no pun intended). I will try to give you some more here when describing people's lessons, or when you have video coaching with me. However, even more important is that you don't get in the hole in the first place. So how does that work?

There's a concept I call the rule of three. If you repeat an action three times it's on its way to becoming a habit. If you repeat it three times on several occasions it will become ingrained, entrenched and even once you have dug yourself out of the hole it will take a lot of effort to reverse things before the action you repeated will not be your "default position" when you get nervous or are inattentive.

So what does this mean? Well, when you are trying out a new piece or exercise - pay attention to your actions very carefully. As soon as you notice a problem or mistake stop and fix it. Okay, you might try it one more time, but if the mistake is still there - - - LOOK OUT! You are already very close to the magic number, and it isn't nice magic. Step away from the shovel. Now is the time to start thinking laterally, break it down, look for exercises that will help you with the technical problem, go slower. get help - or even walk away and try it another day when you have more patience or insight.

We are great at kidding oursleves. "I see what I am doing wrong, I will just keep going over it until I get it right." (So that's maybe 15 repititions with the mistake, then a victory lap or two without it. I don't like the maths.) "This piece isn't that hard, I will probably get it without breaking it down or slowing it down" (But will it be dependable, or is this just another version of the first rationale?) This kind of thinking is so hard to get out of. Heck - I've caught MYSELF thinking "I'm a professional teacher, I can get this by just running through it a few times more."

What? You mean even teachers and pros have to break every little thing down and practise it this way? That depends. If I can get it right on the first or second playing then no - it's within my capability and I can just play it for fun or whatever. If it's still got problems after twice through, then yes, absolutely. If I want it to improve and remain consistent I'd better not dig.

In fact, I see this happen to me sometimes when pupils bring music in that I'm not familiar with. We play it together, or I play it for them. Maybe there's a little passage somewhere that I misread, or I get caught out with the melody going up when I felt it was going down, etc. I can keep the piece going, sure, but there's a little rough spot, and maybe it happens again the next time. They take the music home and I forget all about it. But forever after I have a rough spot there when they produce that piece in their lesson. It occurs to me as I write this that I should probably just lead by example and stop and sort it out right there and then.

Now, where did I park that back hoe.....


Sunday, September 17, 2006

See below

There's an interesting question about piano accordions for playing Irish music among the comments on "What's going one here?". Anybody tried any of the new generation of small piano accordions?

ABCs and things...

It's great to be getting a bit of feedback from this site! If you are finding it at all interesting do leave a comment, and tell your friends.

One person has contacted me requesting that I send them some Scottish ceilidh tunes. There are plenty of sources of these both in books and on the internet. I don't think I want to get into the business of providing these right now. The person who got in touch was asking for tunes in ABC format. This is a way of accurately writing melodies using the alphabet and a few other symbols. Some people really like it, and it is certainly handy on a computer keyboard. (However, I am not fluent in it at all!) However, there are a number of sources of traditional music on the internet which include ABC files and standard notation, so here's a couple of links:

I was also happy to hear from someone who found this page via a link from a site called Let's Polka. This was amazing, as I'd never heard of it and this blog was less than 2 days old at the time. It's a nifty place to go for accordion news, etc. Worth checking out at

Back to the question of me providing written music without tuition for a moment, here's part of my reply to that question in an email I received today. "If you want some help with your playing more generally, I would be happy to help you with that via some video coaching (or perhaps just audio) - and that could include teaching you some tunes by ear. Learning by ear is very rewarding, and although I read the dots very fluently I also encourage all my pupils to learn to play by ear. It really helps your style, and means you can learn things you like straight off CDs or from other players."

I notice that some music teachers seem to base their approach almost entirely on teaching piece after piece without teaching any pure technique. I think there is a belief that people will be too bored and they won't get enough business, etc. I have not found this to be the case in my own teaching. Rather, I think pupils feel enabled to tackle the music they want to play because they know they have the various skills they need in place. Of course I teach tunes as well!!


Thursday, September 14, 2006

First Lessons

So here's how today's first lesson went....
My first pupil today was a chap called Jack (not his real name, obviously!). Jack started with me from scratch a few years ago, taking up the box as something to do now that he is more or less retired. He has found it a challenge, but he has a great attitude and I really enjoy teaching him.
We have been working on advancing Jack's left hand fingering options, so we had a look at some of the exercises I had given him last time. These were simple exercises that he had done before with more straightforward fingering, but now that he is moving on to using all four fingers more fluently I had refingered them for more practise. He had done a great job with them, but there were a few rough spots. I suggested that he repeat the difficult changes until they were smooth, rather than running through an entire exercise. I felt this was all that was needed, as they were in pretty good shape.
We moved on to a right hand exercise that we have been doing with the metronome. This exercise is made up entirely of quavers (8th notes) and one of the ways we play it is two notes to the beat. (This means a note played each time the metronome clicks and another note played halfway between each click.) This gives many pupils difficulty, and what I notice is that they often want to nod their head or tap their foot on each note that they play. Marking each note that you play like this will only slow you down, ultimately. It's like trying to run while carrying something heavy, or with bricks strapped to your feet! Lightness, and therefore speed, comes from feeling less pulses per bar, but it can be a little difficult to get a feel for this, especially if when you started playing you had to think about every movement of your fingers quite hard. I feel it's up to me as a teacher to think of creative ways out of this.
I had Jack listen while I played the exercise with the metronome. First I asked him to nod his head really hard and tap his foot on every note that I played. He admitted that he didn't enjoy this! Then I asked him to have a look at what I was doing. I tapped my foot lightly on each click while I played and also gently swayed my upper body a little - to the left on one click and to the right on the next. I asked him to do this along with me while I played. Hmmm...what did this remind me of? Got it! I said to Jack "It's a bit like the way Stevie Wonder moves when he plays the organ." We both laughed, but it gave Jack an image to keep in his mind. We then moved on to playing the exercise together and "doing the Stevie Wonder thing".
Some of the lesson was also spent on questions Jack had about tunes he is working on. He has been playing Westering Home by ear for a long time, but only hands seperately. Recently he has felt like putting the hands together, but had some questions about how some of the rhythms worked. I showed him how to work it out for himself while I played passages over, as all the rhythms in the tune are ones he has played before in other tunes, which he has played from written music. Hopefully, I gave him enough to go on.
He also had a question about how to play a left hand passage in my arrangement of My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose. At one point it moves from a bar of D to a bar of D7 with an A in the bass. I reminded him how this works. The important thing is to keep your sense of the diagonal D row by keeping your 4th (ring) finger on the D bass button, as the shift to the A bass can easily cause you to lose the D7 button. However, if you play the A bass with the 3rd (middle) finger you can keep 4 in place and it should help you feel more confident about the location of the D7 button. He realised that he actually knew this, but the context was slightly different than he was used to. He explained that he wasn't thinking enough about what things were as he moved from one piece to another. I pointed out that sometimes thinking a bit more about the names of things like chords makes them a bit easier to recognise and transplant from one piece to another, rather than just learning the pattern of each piece and then sort of forgetting what you are actually doing.
A More Advanced Pupil
My next pupil was Sam (no, don't worry, I'm not going to take you through my entire day!). I've taught this guy for quite a few years. He has worked really hard to get where he is with his playing, and now plays in a couple of different amateur groups, which gives him a lot of enjoyment. He has also developed into a bit of a learnaholic and attends a couple of informal music classes as well as having weekly lessons with me. He has a particular interest in harmony and arranging.
First off was a question. Sam had acquired an arrangement of Lullaby of Birdland at one of his groups. The compound chords (Major and minor 6th and 7ths, etc.) were pretty heavy going and fast moving as well. Not only was he not sure his left hand was up to the challenge, he wasn't sure what sort of rhythms to do. I suggested that he would need to take his lead from the rhythm section in the group or maybe ask the leader what to do. We looked at ways that some of the chords might be simplified a bit without clashing with, say, a pianist who might be playing all those 6th and minor 9ths and things.
He also asked me about playing the piece solo "someday" as he really likes it. I talked a bit about the difficulty of any musician really doing a jazz/swing piece justice as a solo - at least in my opinion. No one to bounce ideas off, no one to play fills, back your solo, etc. Of course it can be done - especially on piano or accordion as it's possible to back yourself. However, you have to be really good to make it worthwhile. He went away to think about this, happy just to play it for a bit of fun for now.
I then listened to Sam play a piece he arranged himself, originally as an assignment for me. We both thought it was so successful that he is now working it up as a party piece. It is a slow air, slow strathspey and reel all based on the old Scots fiddle tune Pennan Den. The strathspey is basically the original version, the slow air is a sort of reworking of the melody in waltz time and the reel is a wonderful wild thing with a bit of a Cape Breton feel. However it is technically quite difficult, and has as he has had to practise it very slowly it has been hard to find the right reel feeling. It has improved, but I think as a result of working quite hard at the fast end the air has become a bit off hand and mechanical. I suggested that Sam record himself playing this, as I think he will be much more objective about the sound he is making and able to guide himself rather than playing his piece my way! I also suggested that it might help the feel of the reel to play it in a set with some other reels for awhile rather than just following the air and strathspey, as the whole thing sounds a little too routine.
I hope all this has provided readers with food for thought. Please feel free to leave comments or questions. - Kris

What's Going on Here?

This is a bit of an experiment. I have been thinking for awhile about how much I enjoy teaching the accordion, and that I would love to be able to help more people learn. I often hear that people can't find a teacher in their area. This blog is a first step in trying to make contact with those of you who want some help with basic questions and points of technique, or those who might like some tuition on a more regular basis, perhaps by sending me some video of themselves playing and getting help that way.

I also hope to offer some instructional material soon, as I have always used lessons and exercises that I have developed myself anyway; but rather than jump in with what I think you should learn, I hope this blog will help me get a feel for what potential students are looking for.

I will try to write regularly, basing my entries on the day to day progress and challenges that arise as I teach my local pupils. I hope that this will encourage my readers here to comment and ask questions. If you have a question about accordion playing, or would like information about trying some distance learning with me, feel free to leave a comment here, or email me if you prefer.